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What AI can learn from HCI (Human Communication Intelligence)

The applications and risks of AI (Artificial Intelligence) are growing at record speed. ChatGPT signed over 100 million users in its first two months on the market (compared to FB which took 4.5 years to reach that level of market penetration). And on the flip side, AI founders and experts, Sam Altman, George Hinton, Demis Hassabis, and Stuart Russell were among the many who signed a 22-word statement warning about the existential risks of the technology. Geoffrey Hinton, the “Godfather of AI,” recently quit Google warning that the growth of Microsoft-powered ChatGPT and other AI-powered communication tools will pose a potential threat even greater than climate change.

While the risks catch headlines, the benefits of AI-powered communication tools are all too apparent to the business world. ChatGPT automates response to scale customer-centered processes, streamlines efficiencies, and is an invaluable resource to marketers. With AI-powered tools like ChatGPT fully present in the communication corner, how can we both maximize its benefits while also being strident about its limitations?

Given the complex interpersonal terrain we are in: rounds of layoffs, growing sensitivity around Diversity Equity and Inclusion, along with political differences making their way into the workplace, there are aspects of our work lives in which we will need more sophisticated methods of Human Communication Intelligence (or HCI).

Here are three specific practices that business leaders need to strengthen around human-centered communication skills for all levels of management, from the front desk to the C-Suite.

1/ Only Human Intelligence can tell a Compelling Story

We have learned from the Covid years that “The Great Resignation” and “Quiet Quitting,” are phenomena that emerge from professionals seeking more meaning, purpose, and balance in their work lives. While most leaders can share a compelling plan (or in Simon Sinek’s words, the “What” and “How” of work), the most successful leaders are the ones who can articulate a compelling “Why.” Why are we doing the work we are doing? Why are we producing this product or offering this service? Why is it important that I show up to work every day and give it my all? Curating organizational stories that answer these bigger “Why” questions will motivate and direct employees at every level.

Getting to your “Why” might take some time, space, and soul searching. While you may trade efficiency (pressing a button with a set of prompts) for efficacy (coming up with a “Why” that matters), the benefits will last. So the next time you need to inspire the new cohort or onboard new employees, share the story of your organization or company’s “Why?” Only Human Communication Intelligence can help your stakeholders stay loyal to a compelling vision.

2/ Speak the truth but lead with compassion

Emotional Intelligence cannot (yet) be artificially generated. Even as AI technology studies human reactions and behaviors, it cannot lead with compassion or ‘read a room.’ As our economies are in flux, many leaders are initiating hard conversations. Downsizing, reorganizing department structures, and shifting priorities require business leaders to get comfortable having conversations that can breed disappointment. A ChatGPT script won’t be enough to guide them when they want to share that a colleague’s work at the company is coming to an end. Opening with compassion and speaking clearly and succinctly will. Framing a hard conversation as an opportunity for growth and learning is a human-centered quality that can move interactions from transactional (“thank you for working for us”) to transformational (“thank you for what you gave us, here are concrete examples of times when your work really mattered.”)

Even when the layoffs are massive, Human Communication Intelligence can design a process that puts care and compassion at the center. While ChatGPT can offer generic language to managers, Human Communication Intelligence can design a system in which colleagues share specific examples of what an employee’s contributions have meant for a team. Designing these experiences as a way of applying human intelligence is not only the right thing to do, it is also practical. When workers speak well about the company they are leaving, the company benefits.

3/ Our Presence is more impactful than our words

In the classic studies by Mehrabian & Wiener and Mehrabian & Ferris (1967) three elements sit at the core of effective communication: the verbal (the words we use), the vocal (how we express ourselves), and the facial (or our body language when speaking). These authors founded the 7–38–55 rule. The words we use impact the listener only 7% of the time, our vocal expression makes an impact on the listener 38% of the time, and our facial/body language accounts for impact 55% of the time. While ChatGPT can take care of the verbal impact, for communication to be effective, human encounters are critical. In essence, the audio needs to match the video. So while we can count on AI to frame the content, nothing can replace human delivery. As Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

AI and ChatGPT are here to stay. While we cannot put the genie back in the bottle, we can remember who is holding the bottle in the first place. Or as Chrisitan Lous Lang once said, (Nobel Peace Prize winner, 1921) “Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master”.

While communication technology gives us something fast (e.g. creating well-articulated correspondence instantaneously) it takes away something slow, (our ability to stay present, initiate hard conversations with compassion, and tell a compelling story with integrity.)

Because our words create worlds, business leaders should think about the work world they want to create and double down on practicing Human Communication Intelligence as a tool to get them there.

(Written together with Kim Weinberg, Executive Coach and Facilitator, Georgetown University Program Director. Reach her at

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